“Wholehearted and hard-working, Stuart Lancaster’s men nonetheless lacked both composure and a cutting edge.”
The above is a line from a BBC’s match report on England’s narrow home loss against South Africa, from November 2012. It could well have been used this week though. There has been a strong reaction to the 2014 losses against New Zealand and South Africa, with the view that the team are now at crisis point. Are England really no better off than two years ago?
The accepted view at the moment seems to be that they can be relied on to put in a shift, possess a strong pack (regardless of injuries) and set-piece and aren’t going to be beaten by many points at home. On the other hand, there is still a big question mark over backline selection, specifically the centre combination while game management and decision making under pressure remain an issue.
In his ‘Winning!’ book, Sir Clive Woodward’s review of the 1999 Rugby World Cup contains the lines:
“Selection is the most important part of this job. Selection wins or loses you more matches than anything else”.
If that is the case, it is worth looking at the selection choices since 2012.
The 2011 RWC squad contained 14 players aged 28 or older – Shaw, Moody,Thompson, Easter, Tindall, Mears, Palmer, Wilkinson, Cueto, Deacon, Hape, Stevens, Waldrom and Wigglesworth.
That ‘natural cycle’ of a World Cup every 4 years did mean that whoever was in charge of England after 2011 was going to need to rebuild, to a certain extent. A major tournament does make for a sensible landmark for players wishing to retire, but even so there are usually a few senior players that can feature in at least the next year and hopefully act as mentors.
Then coach Martin Johnson spoke recently about the 2011 tournament, saying there were similar events in 2003 that went unreported due to the team winning. That may be the case, but he perhaps underestimated at the time, the importance of perception. Throw in a leaked report afterwards and it was open season. That meant that there was work needed to repair the relationship with media, fans etc but also that expectation levels were low for the next coach.
The performances in that World Cup can’t be glossed over, but it is worth remembering England did win the Six Nations that year, their only success in that tournament since 2003.
Looking at the first side picked in 2012, there were 8 starters retained from the 2011 squad and with Wood injured it is highly likely that the intention was for 9.
Below are the starting XVs picked from 2012 up until last weekend (32 Tests):
In terms of forward combinations, selection has been pretty consistent throughout the two years and changes have usually related to injury or form.
Using the ‘if the World Cup Final was tomorrow and everybody was available’ cliché, then there would be tough choices in the tight 5 – but of a positive nature, due to having a number of units that have been seen before and can be trusted.
Based on number of times picked, it would be Marler, Hartley, Cole, Parling, Launchbury but with at least 3 viable options in each position it could just as likely be Corbisiero, Youngs, Wilson, Lawes, Attwood etc.
The captain has actually featured in 29 of the 32 games in this period, missing the 3rd Test in South Africa and then rested for the Argentina tour in 2013. That does means there hasn’t been much game-time given to a replacement 7 or indeed captain, but even with the benefit of hindsight, it isn’t that easy to identify other games where he could have been rested.
Bar the experimentation of Lawes at 6 and Wood at 8 during the 2013 Six Nations, there haven’t been too many surprises with the backrow picks and unless there is a change of policy due to the current run of defeats, it looks to be Wood, Robshaw and one of Morgan / Vunipola.
The selection patterns are less consistent when it comes to the backline though:
The Telegraph quoted Stuart Lancaster on Monday as saying:
“When you are in the situation you are in, with players being away or unavailable or the natural cycle with where we are as a team – our backline had very little international experience in relation to the New Zealand backline or the Boks. We need to do that but there’s only been so many games since 2012”
The comparison of backline experience with New Zealand is interesting as both sides share a selection trend when it comes to the halfbacks.
The All Blacks have started Aaron Smith in 35 of their 41 Tests since 2012 and then rotated the fly-halves with Carter, Cruden, Barrett and Taylor used. Injuries (and missed flights) have been a factor with the 10s but whenever possible, Steve Hansen has selected Smith at 9.
England have also opted for a constant in the halfbacks, but at fly-half instead. Since returning to the team in December 2012, Owen Farrell has started 16 of 21 Tests – with the missed games being down to planned rotation (Italy, Six Nations 2013), unavailability (Argentina tour and 1st Test in New Zealand) and injury (3rd Test in New Zealand). He has been paired with Care 8 times and Dickson and Youngs 6 times each. Oddly, he hasn’t yet been given a go with his club team mate Wigglesworth – who has the kicking game and management to both remove pressure for his 10 and close out a game.
Given Flood (6 starts since 2012, 60 caps overall) and Hodgson (2 starts, 38 overall) are unlikely to feature next year, it means Burns (4 starts) is the only other candidate at fly-half to have started a match in this period.
The difference between New Zealand and England’s halfback policy is that Smith is arguably now their key player (the step down from Read or McCaw to their replacements being less than for Smith’s) and certainly their first choice scrum-half by some distance. However, Farrell’s place in the side has been questioned regularly.
England have the remaining matches this Autumn, the Six Nations and then the three warm up games before the World Cup starts. It may lead to a similar situation to 1999, when Grayson was the main choice before the tournament (17 starts) and then Wilkinson emerging in the year before (5 starts at fly-half and 4 at centre before the tournament).
George Ford may not get those 5 starts before 2015, but he has played in a 10/12 combo with Farrell at JWC level and at some point that is surely going to be replicated at Test level. Having placed so much faith and time in Farrell, that may also be a preferable option to dropping him completely. It is also true that his first couple of starts for England were at 12, and he moved to fly-half when Hodgson was injured.
The Wales loss in 2013 has proved to be an important match when looking at selection of the backline and the patterns can be split into the 17 games up to and including that defeat and then the 15 matches since.
The main centre partnership in that first run of matches was Barritt / Tuilagi (11 starts) with Twelvetrees, Joseph and Farrell filling in when there was an injury. The 2012 Six Nations saw a back 3 of Strettle, Ashton and Foden chosen and that became Brown, Ashton, Goode for the 2013 tournament. The general complaints at the time were that England weren’t creating much, were too defensively minded and relying on charge-downs and Tuilagi’s power to score tries.
That 30-3 defeat in Wales was the last time that Goode was picked as a starter (5 sub appearances since), that the Youngs / Farrell pairing began a match together, that Brown was picked as a winger and also due to injury, the last time the centre combination of Barritt / Tuilagi was seen. In the pack – neither the Marler, Youngs, Cole frontrow nor Croft,Robshaw,Wood backrow trio have been picked again.
The Lions tour did have an influence on selection for England’s tour to Argentina, as first Farrell, Youngs, Tuilagi and then Barritt (rested from England duty), Twelvetrees and Wade were used. Wade had initially been picked for the 2nd Test against Argentina but due to his call up to Australia, was replaced by May – who has since started 9 of the last 14 Tests.
With injuries to Barritt and Tuilagi in Autumn 2013, there was a query over who to partner Twelvetrees in the midfield. The options were Tomkins, Burrell, Eastmond and Trinder with the former being chosen for all 3 matches. He has since returned to Wigan so it is easy to mock the pick now, but at the time the idea of bringing an offloading centre into the mix was praised.
Amidst the current gloom, the optimism from this year’s Six Nations shouldn’t be forgotten. England picked the same backline throughout the tournament – Care,Farrell, May, Twelvetrees, Burrell, Nowell, Brown. They ended up scoring 14 tries and carried for more metres (2623m) clean breaks (41) and defenders beaten (133) than any other side.
For a flavour of the mood during the tournament, here is the Guardian match report after beating Wales:
“..England were also without the likes of Manu Tuilagi, Tom Croft, Dan Cole, Alex Corbisiero, Geoff Parling, Billy Vunipola and Marland Yarde. Stick them all back in alongside Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Mike Brown, Danny Care, Luther Burrell and Owen Farrell, all consistently impressive in this championship, and there is the emerging nucleus of a team that could conceivably take on all-comers when the rest of the world come to play in 2015. Lancaster’s team have now beaten every Tier One nation in the past two years with the exception of the Springboks, against whom they drew in Port Elizabeth in 2012”
“…the Triple Crown will be far from the only silverware claimed during Lancaster’s tenure”
The Twelvetrees / Burrell partnership used in the tournament does compare well with the
other combinations. It also isn’t a surprise to see that the partnerships that feature a higher than usual amount of defenders beaten tend to feature one of Eastmond or Tuilagi.
The presence of Twelvetrees during the Six Nations did also seem to take pressure off Farrell. With the former out the squad and the latter lacking game –time, perhaps it shouldn’t be a shock that England have struggled in attack, against stronger opposition than in the Six Nations.
A mixture of players being unavailable due to the Premiership final, injured or picked when only just back from injury meant the continuity from the Six Nations was lost when they toured New Zealand. It can be seen as a missed opportunity, not only to pick up a rare win away against the All Blacks but also to field that in-form XV again and see how they handled a step up in difficulty.
The starting sides for the New Zealand and South Africa matches this Autumn haven’t been that dissimilar to that Six Nations team – with Attwood for Launchbury, Eastmond & Barritt for Twelvetrees & Burrell and Nowell replaced by Watson / Rokoduguni.
England have now used 10 different midfield combinations since 2012 compared to 12 by New Zealand in 41 games. The contrast is that New Zealand have an established World Cup winning pair of Nonu / Smith and have worked on building depth, while England likely don’t know their best option.
The All Blacks have also used 13 different back 3 variations compared to England’s 14 but again their selection strategy is quite clear. They have a group of main starters– Dagg (34), Savea (30), Jane(19) and B Smith (16) and have then tried the likes of Piuatu, Gear, Halai around them.
England’s most selected back 3 players in this period are Brown (23), Ashton (20), Foden, Goode (10). If you treat England’s 32 matches as a chance to select 96 back 3 players, then it can be said that 57 of those 96 picks were used on players currently not being picked for the side. That is important when the idea of inexperience in the backline is raised as it isn’t just the limited number of games that is a factor, but also previous selections now being discarded.
Looking at the wing picks since 2012 (ignoring Tuilagi and Brown), it can be seen that Wade has the best Premiership scoring record since 2011/12, both in terms of number of tries and try / minutes played ratio. He is also capable of creating the same type of ‘wonder try’ as the player below him on the list. That Lions call up, injury and a couple of high profile defensive errors haven’t helped his cause – but if creativity remains a problem then he, like Tuilagi has the ability to turn shovelled, slow ball into a try scoring threat.
When Ireland beat South Africa a couple of weeks ago, they managed to take points from 5 of their 6 trips to the Boks 22 (via Ruckingoodstats), compared to the rate of 3/10 successful visits by their opponent. England’s loss against the same opposition last Saturday saw points collected on 4/11 trips compared to 5/8 from South Africa. Against New Zealand they scored on 2/8 trips compared to 4/9 from the All Blacks.
Possession and territory are still important but at the end of the match they aren’t worth that much, if scoring chances aren’t converted. The positive for England is that they have put themselves in positions to take points against the top two sides. The obvious negative is that they didn’t take them.
After the match last week, South Africa coach Heyneke Meyer stated that England “will have a great World Cup and they can make the final”…
Meyer does have a habit of flattering opponents, but in this case it is fair. With home advantage, a favourable schedule, that powerful pack and set-piece , England have to be considered a contender.That remains the case even if they have just lost 5 matches in a row against New Zealand and South Africa.
Holding Armitage, Burgess or even Ford up as a magic bullet that will come in and immediately solve all England’s problems is likely to end in disappointment. It is also true that unlike New Zealand and South Africa, there isn’t the ‘safety net’ of reverting to a 50+ cap veteran if a new selection doesn’t work out. Picking a midfield combination and sticking with it (injury permitting) until the World Cup is in within their control though. If that involves being ruthless with a previous favourite then that shouldn’t be a problem, given back 3 players have been dropped after a long run of matches.
The ‘crisis’ stuff is over the top, but selection in the next few games and then the Six Nations will be crucial.